Lacy adds new dimension as receiver

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) takes off on a 67-yard run after a screen pass against the Saints.

Catching the football never has been a problem for Eddie Lacy. It just wasn't a job requirement for running backs at the University of Alabama.

The 5-foot-11, 230-pound back was brought to Tuscaloosa to run the football, and his first year with the Green Bay Packers followed a similar path — charge downhill and produce yards.

In both cases, Lacy admits opportunities to catch the ball were "rare" and the stats reflect that. Like his rookie season in Green Bay, roughly 90 percent of Lacy's touches in three collegiate seasons came out of the backfield with the quarterback operating under center.

Don't confuse lack of opportunity with lack of ability, however. As the NFL is quickly learning, the second-year running back can burn you in a multitude of ways, including as a receiver out of the backfield.

"Any time that guy touches the ball, it's unbelievable," center Corey Linsley said. "Something unbelievable is going to happen."

Lacy has 24 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown, already surpassing the 256 receiving yards he had in 15 games as a rookie. A lot of that production has come off the screen pass in the Packers' past two games.

After busting out a 67-yard gain against New Orleans before the bye, Lacy caught Chicago completely off guard in burning the Bears for a 56-yard touchdown in Sunday's 55-14 win at Lambeau Field. He got assistance from injured guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, and the second effort of receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.

Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) runs for a 56-yard touchdown off a screen pass Sunday against the Bears.

It's helped rejuvenate what had become a lost art of the Packers' explosive offense and has Lacy ranked eighth in receiving yards among NFL running backs. His 11.5-yard per reception average is third-most in the league behind Philadelphia's Darren Sproles (12.2) and Washington's Roy Helu (11.8) for backs with at least 20 receptions.

"I don't have a problem (with it)," Lacy said. "It's like asking if I'm comfortable. I felt comfortable running from under center and coming here and running from shotgun. It's your position. You have to do it. If you can't, somebody else is going to do it. I didn't have a problem transitioning to it at all."

The Packers needed every inch of Lacy's 1,178 rushing yards to stay in the playoff chase last season. His reward was capturing NFL offensive rookie of the year, but things were bound to change with Aaron Rodgers' return to full health.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements' aim continues to be getting Lacy 20 touches per game, though he's surpassed that threshold only once this season with 21 touches for 182 total yards against the Saints.

The 44-23 loss to the Saints was demoralizing on a number of fronts, but it also was a turning point for Lacy and the screen game, which had been featured prominently during Mike Holmgren's and Mike Sherman's offenses in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Until recently, the screen production has taken a back seat in McCarthy's eight-plus seasons in Green Bay. The Packers maintain they've been calling screen plays all season. It's just that Rodgers has been exercising different options.

When he has turned to Lacy, the 24-year-old running back has come through. His versatility reminds Rodgers a little of former San Francisco running back Roger Craig, who rushed for 1,050 yards and had 1,016 receiving yards in 1985.

"I was teasing Eddie about it after last week that he had the potential to be a 1,000-1,000 guy," Rodgers said. "He's such a talented guy. He can do so many things for us. If he's not running it real effectively, he can still show up in the pass game and get yards for us and get touchdowns."

Lacy and his fellow running backs concentrated more on pass-catching this offseason, well before the backfield was aware the Packers would start incorporating the backs in the passing game.

During training camp, position coach Sam Gash spent most off-periods firing short passes to Lacy. They were small workouts compared to everything else he did in the summer, but it's paying off in the heart of the season.

Lacy isn't a burner, but he's a force when he gets into the open field. In New Orleans, Saints safety Rafael Bush practically needed a wrecking ball to prevent Lacy from getting in the end zone on the 67-yard screen. Against the Bears, his athleticism mixed with timely blocks from Lang, Sitton and Linsley allowed him to cut across the field to increase the gain.

When it looked like Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller might cut him off, Nelson raced past Lacy to set the final block to clear the way to the end zone.

"He didn't get a lot of opportunities last year," Rodgers said of Lacy. "He's got great hands. He does some good things with the ball after he catches it. The screen was a great team play. You had guys going downfield — injured guys on the offensive line getting downfield and making blocks. You've got Randall and Jordy coming up big on some blocks. That's how a 4-yard pass turns into a 50-plus-yard touchdown."

Whether a screen play succeeds often boils down to timing and explosiveness. One factor working in Lacy's favor is his willingness to absorb contact and keep pushing ahead with defensive backs charging full steam in his direction.

Sure, this isn't how everyone expected Lacy to follow up his rookie of the year campaign, but he learned during his time at Alabama to do what the coaches ask. It made him a national champion.

This year, this is his game plan and it's mostly worked outside of a quiet September. He's on pace for 42 catches for 492 yards this season, which would be the most receiving yards for a Packers running back since Ahman Green caught 62 passes for 594 yards in 2001.

According to Pro Football Focus, Lacy has forced 13 missed tackles on his 24 receptions without a drop.

"Eddie is obviously a big-play threat anytime he has the ball in his hands," Lang said. "We didn't really have opportunities. Obviously the blocking unit, when you're hitting big plays down the field like Aaron was (Sunday), you soften that coverage up a little bit and can take advantage of some things underneath. … It's something we work hard at every day in practice and it's nice when we get some big plays off of it."

As prolific as the Packers' offense has been, the screen play hasn't been a focal point like it was when Green, Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett were starting in the backfield. Maybe it doesn't need to be with all the perimeter options the Packers have compiled during general manager Ted Thompson's tenure.

Whatever the case, Lacy and the screen game could prove valuable during the team's stretch run.

"It's all the same to me," Lacy said. "Get the football and get to run around a little bit. It doesn't matter how I get it whether it's run or pass, it's just every opportunity make the most of it."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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